by Belle McGhee
Religion and spirituality are two very different things to me. I believe in God, one singular creative force who set all things in motion. I believe this because of, among other things, the intricacies in functions of the human body, the connections between systems on this planet, and the desire to speak to and worship something beyond ourselves that evolved and stayed with the fittest, even though it served no true evolutionary purpose. After that though, things get a bit fuzzier.
I'm gonna be as honest about my family here as I can be. A lot of things shape a life, a personality, a system of beliefs. Primary of these influences is, in my opinion, the way you hear, store, and synthesize the stories of your family, especially in terms of spiritual and political belief systems. I'll do the best I can here to share my honest synthesis of events I stored as a child, reflected upon as I matured, and interpreted through the dual lenses of life experience and education. (Hashtag: these people crazy, but they my people.)
My grandfather liked to tell stories, and he was good at it. He told tales of lost big toes cooked in beans that kept us up at night. He spun yarns about how the paths of tiny, loose pellets of snow rolling down the mountains were actually the footsteps of little men, going about business we human folk couldn't understand. He led us to believe if we watched closely enough, spent enough time in surveillance, we might actually spot one or two. A wise trick to occupy rowdy kids for a good while. He also wove a tale about how God spoke to him. Called him by name one bright, sunny day, (From under a bridge no less!) and told him he was chosen.
My great grandmother, Mary Belle, died when my grandpa was just a kid, leaving him and his sister basically alone in the world. Their father had run off "with some old Jezebel," even before that, and while Mary Belle remarried, her kids weren't her new husbands kids, as far as the new husband was concerned. So, Grandpa's childhood years after her death were spent as an extra in this or that relative's home. Once his mother passed, there was no one to give him that one on one attention that all kids need from at least one person in their little lives. I'm pretty sure there was abuse, too. Things like that aren't laid bare in a southern family. Secrets are implied, and all such conversation occurs in code, but sure as I'm sitting here, something bad happened to him.
While she was alive, it is almost certain that Mary B. doted on him fully. He was her only boy, and boys were prized possessions in those days, these days too, in most places below the Mason Dixon Line. While he was, by all standards, a very handsome young man, no one raised that close to, or below, the poverty line develops such a pervasive case of narcissism from looks alone. Grandpa was uneducated, poor, and all by himself in the world. Unless his formative years were spent on a pedestal with a perfectly level view of the top of Black Mountain, there's no reasonable excuse for it.
The crux of the matter is this: here we have an attractive young man with a deeply ingrained sense of his own uniqueness, wandering free and alone in the world, searching for the source of this intense feeling of special purpose, gifted by a mother who is no longer there in a period of his development unremembered. If not for his also deeply ingrained distrust of other human beings and the fact that he came from old hill-folk hermit stock (I can attest that the desire to hermit is genetic.), that's a perfect set-up for a, "Let's take a trip to South America and make some Kool-Aid," type of career path. Anyway, as the story goes, apparently he's just walking down the road, shucking a little, jiving a little, basically minding his own business, and Bam! Voice O' God right outta the blue... or I should say, from under that bridge. (This is the story I heard folks. Hard to suspend judgement, I know.)
God tells him he's special. He has a plan for him, and he will give him, and only him, "The Truth." Many's the time I was told, "If you ain't on 'The Truth'."you can't go to heaven," or, "You can't listen to them, they ain't on 'The Truth'." As well as that old standard, "There's not one church that's on 'The Truth'. Grandpa is the only one. Church of Christ, they're close, but they still ain't there," There were so many variations and iterations of this tune, they're too numerous to mention. In short, I firmly believed as a child that he was the only one going to heaven. We might get to go with him, if he'd just tell us what "The Truth" actually was, but it was highly unlikely anyone else would be there. (Now that I think about it, his heaven was Hermit Heaven! Dang! Why didn't I take notes? Why didn't I get "The Truth" on tape?)
I questioned him many times throughout the years, but I never, and still haven't to this day, figured out what he meant by "The Truth." As time passed, I wondered if maybe it was just me. Maybe there was a fundamental wrongness inside me that impeded my ability to fathom "The Truth". Maybe I just wasn't meant to understand because half of my genetic code came from heathen stock. (Oh, Mom and Dad, story for another day.) Maybe "The Truth" just took too long to share in one sitting, and I'd missed too many sections of it due to consistently intermittent family feuding, to fill in the gaps. How long DID he sit by, or at, or under, that bridge, anyway? If the story God told him was so convoluted, how did he remember it all from just one run-through? Also, I can sort of understand a burning bush, but a bridge? Not even on it, but under it? Sounds all kinds of Pennywise the Clown to me.
Even now, at 42, when my thoughts of him and his stories turn to the sarcastic humor that has served as my personal saving grace through all these years, I can't help but feel a twinge of fear that I am engaged in the sacrilegious. It's that deeply ingrained. If a prophet is one who speaks directly with God and serves as intermediary of God's will to those around him, then for a long time, he was our prophet. The things he said regarding God and religion were held in as high regard by us as were the very writings in the Bible. Still are by some members of the family.
I respect their beliefs fully, whether I share them or not. I don't share them, by the way. But, I loved, and still love, my grandfather. His singular life experiences carved a true eccentric. He was a survivor who could spin a yarn, sing a song, dance a jig, and make you laugh until your tummy ached.
Oddly enough, it is upon writing this that I realize his constant reference to "The Truth," and my inability to form a coherent understanding of it, led me to question the very foundations, tenets, and practices of religion itself. I pride myself on my acceptance of the beliefs of others. Not just tolerance, but acceptance. I also pride myself on the staunch knowledge that there is no ONE TRUE WAY to God. What are the odds that my faith in the lack of one true path would sprout from the stories of one who consistently professed that he had the only map to that destination?
Does God send messages? I don't know. I have a hard time believing he speaks to people from bushes, or from under bridges, but this understanding feels a bit like a message from God, or the universe, or my own brain's constant struggle to make sense of this world and my place in it. I do know a bit of healing happened here today in the writing of this piece. That part of me that always felt unworthy because it couldn't put down logic long enough to march forward, blindly faithful in the knowledge that a "Child of Bill" had a shot at getting past the doorman and straight into Heaven's VIP room, just had an epiphany.
I found my truth because I couldn't understand yours, Grandpa. Thank you.
Belle McGhee is a Language Arts teacher who grew up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. She is a some-time poet, full-time wife and mother who fully intends to write a book or two someday.
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